06/05/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Bad Seed Revisited

Eleven years ago I wrote  that Monsanto's strategy of marketing genetically modified crops -- potatoes, cotton, corn -- into which the natural soil microbicide Bt had been inserted -- would be a short-term benefit to the farmers who used it, but a long-term disaster for agriculture. I pointed out that even Monsanto admitted that eventually insects fed a steady diet of Bt-enhanced crops would develop resistance and that, as a consequence, Bt itself, in its conventional "spray when needed" form, would lose all efficacy both for the farmers who planted Bt seed and for those who didn't.

At the time, Monsanto said it would be thirty years before Bt was finished. I speculated that a potato beetle in Colorado would develop the first resistance. In fact, the first Bt-resistant pest emerged in a cotton field in Gujarat, India, and it happened only four years after the first planting of Bt cotton. Monsanto claims that these recently discovered pink bollworms are resistant to current Cry1Ac Bt cotton variety.

But is Monsanto perturbed? Not at all. It's now advising farmers to buy a newer Bt variety, one that  combines two genes -- and costs more. Indeed, some Indian scientists suspect that Monsanto is claiming Bt-resistance sooner than its actual emergence so that it can sell the more expensive, two-gene seeds and make a higher profit. Monsanto is also blaming farmers for failing to plant a sufficient portion of their cotton fields as "refugia," where bollworms could feed on non-Bt cotton plants delaying the emergence of resistance. The refuge strategy may delay resistance -- but it's only viable in a place like the U.S. where the average cotton farmer has huge acreage and can afford to devote some of it to plants that he knows will get eaten. In India, each farmer has a very small field, and no one farmer can afford to provide the "refuge" for pink bollworms that Monsanto's strategy requires.

India just went through a major storm over requests by Monsanto to approve Bt-enhanced eggplant (called brinjal in India) -- a request that the government ultimately refused.

What will happen when farmers shift to the two-gene variety of Bt cotton? As a matter of fact, we know the answer quite precisely based on past experience with drug-resistant pests. Pink bollworms and other pests will emerge that are resistant to multiple Bt genes, and these super pests will then be impossible to control, either with Bt seeds or with conventional Bt sprays.

As I wrote eleven years ago:

The farmer in the fable had a goose that laid golden eggs. Organic farmers have just such a miraculous creature in the form of the humble, soil-dwelling bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, which makes its way in the world by emitting a toxin that kills insects. This makes Bt a boon to organic farmers, who spray their crops with it at times of peak caterpillar or insect infestation.

In the fable, the greedy farmer kills the goose. Monsanto Corporation is threatening to do the same to Bt.

That the goose is being killed in India, instead of Colorado, is a grim reminder that the costs of poorly regulated globalization fall mostly on the poor. And that Monsanto seems utterly unconcerned that in only four years it has destroyed a pest-control strategy that took thousands of years to evolve and that could have served farmers forever is a revealing glimpse into the soul of this corporation.